“If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.” -Nora Roberts
Asking for what you want may seem like obvious advice, and yet so many of us fail to take it. We want a bigger raise, but are too afraid to ask for fear of upsetting our boss. We want a night off from making dinner, but we feel guilty because our partner doesn’t like to cook. We want to go out with friends for an evening, but feel guilty leaving the spouse home with the kids.
We constantly want for things and say nothing. As we bottle up these wants and needs, our resentment builds, which is harmful to our relationships. Then, we wonder why our partner or boss couldn’t just read our minds. Somehow, we blame the other person. The reality is, we have only ourselves to blame.
One of the most important lessons I ever learned is to ask for what I want. It didn’t come quickly and it took an effort from me. Asking not only greatly increases the chances of getting what you want, but it can have the added benefit of getting more respect. Let’s face it. If you don’t ask, you are pretty much guaranteed not to get what you want.
Despite the overwhelming drawbacks of keeping silent, asking is sometimes portrayed as bad, or rude. The famous story of Oliver Twist tells of a starving young orphan who dares to ask for more food (not even out of his own choice). In reply, the caregiver turns red and yells “More, more, you wanted MORE?!?” after which Oliver is kicked out of the orphanage.
For many years, I often feared that if I dared ask for something, even something that I really needed, others would get frustrated and wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me. It was as if I were living in the world of Oliver Twist. I believed that the needs and desires of others were more important than my own. I was too afraid to inconvenience anyone for anything, even if it meant the world to me.
It’s ok to ask
In my mid twenties, I gradually started to learn how to ask. At first, only for what’s most important. To my surprise, nobody got offended. And what really rocked my whole belief system was that I often got what I asked for! I was certainly confused, since this contradicted what I had always felt to be true. Hesitantly, I kept on asking, and still nobody got offended! It seemed that I was wrong before. It was OK to ask, at least sometimes.
Several years later, I experienced another major revelation that further reshaped my beliefs. During a university event, a professor shared that students who ask the most end up getting the most help from their supervisors. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” she said. I was stunned. I was already picking up on the importance of asking when a lot was at stake, despite any reservations I may have. Now I was being told that asking was acceptable and even encouraged! Bit by bit, I started to ask for more and more of what I wanted. And, perhaps not so strangely, life started to get much easier.
I wasn’t very good at it at first. I worried for a long time before asking for anything. I always tried to find the perfect time to ask. But, there was a downside to asking, and I didn’t handle it very well. In fact, this downside I’m about to discuss was one of the main reasons why I continued to have a hard time asking for what I wanted, even with so many positive changes coming into my life. Like many people, I wasn’t very good at handling rejection.
Several months later, while speaking with a friend about the idea of asking for what you want, she shared with me the following insight: “If you never hear ‘No’, you are not asking for enough.” I found this statement hard to grasp at first. Was it really possible I should be seeking out rejection?!?
Even though I was asking for more than I ever had before, I almost never heard “No.” I always thought that if someone says “no” to me, then I had asked for way too much. I was afraid to hear this word uttered. This one expression, made by a friend over tea one afternoon, forever changed how I view rejection. I decided to put it to the test. I would ask for more until I heard a “No”. I didn’t want to lose out because I was too afraid to open my mouth and ask. After a lot of practice, I now view rejection as a positive thing: It means I must be doing something right. It’s a sign that I’m asking for enough.
Despite my personal growth in this area, I still get a “No” quite rarely. People are surprisingly willing to accommodate when asked, or perhaps I’m still not asking for enough. Sometimes a person will even go out of their way to try to get you what you want. Of course, we should always be conscious of how we’re treating other people and not abuse those who are good-natured and helpful.
On the other hand, you have to remember that just as you have the right to say “no”, so do others. If someone is unable or unwilling to meet my request, I only insist if the matter is sufficiently important. Remember, just because someone says “No,” doesn’t mean they think you’re demanding. But, I’ll touch on that subject now.
Fear of appearing demanding
Many of us don’t ask because we don’t want to seem demanding. We are afraid to annoy the important people in our lives. Of course, it is possible to be demanding and annoying. But I believe that this takes more than just asking. It takes insistence. Now, insistence can be a very good thing, but only if you’re insistent about what you absolutely need, and where, for you, rejection is just not an option. Only you can draw the line on whether it’s worth insisting. By simply asking once, you’re won’t appear demanding to any reasonable person.
Those who don’t ask miss out
I’m going to give more concrete examples of the benefits of asking. When me and my husband had a child, he decided to take several years off schooling to work in industry. He got an offer from a local software company, and negotiated his pay. He asked for a lot higher than he was originally offered, and much higher than anyone else I knew working in the area. They didn’t give him exactly what he asked for, but it was higher than the original offer. As a result, he ended up with higher pay than an equally qualified employee who already worked there for several years! When she got the same initial offer, she was so happy to have a job that she didn’t negotiate.
As another example, I know a software developer who lived alone for five years despite having a wife and three children. His job simply did not pay him enough to support his family in the large city where he worked. After five years of living apart from his family, he finally decided to ask for a raise. When the raise was granted on the spot, he suddenly realized that he did not ask for enough. So, he went to his boss, and asked for another raise. He asked for a raise four times in a row, and his request was granted all four times! He could have lived with his family for years, if he had only asked earlier! I don’t recommend that you ask for a raise four times in a row, but this extreme example illustrates by how much we can underestimate our value.
How to ask
There is also the question of how to ask. So many times I speak with people who want to ask, and know that they should, but they don’t because they don’t know how. From my experience, it really doesn’t matter. My only goal when I ask is to be clear. I want to make sure that I successfully communicate to the other person what I want. Of course, I am polite. But I don’t try to wait for just the right time, and I don’t plan out long complicated paragraphs with fancy words. I just ask. Perhaps there is some more advanced, quality advice out there about how to ask (feel free to share this advice if you are aware of any), but in my experience, a simple and direct approach works well.
Asking and respect
When you ask, people respect you more. By asking for something, you are implicitly saying that you deserve it. And when people respect you, they are also a lot more likely to comply with your request. I knew a woman who got a job at a high-profile company on Wall Street. She was an exceptional candidate, and they were very excited to have her work for them. But, when she did not negotiate her pay, her boss was afraid that he had made a mistake. In his view, nobody who was worth hiring would just take the first thing that they were offered.
Not just money
Most of my examples so far were about money. Exactly the same principles apply everywhere. In the workplace, it also applies to things like vacation time, supplies, and office space. Asking is also important in interpersonal relationships. Sometimes we assume that our partner should already know what we want, and get upset when they don’t. Asking is often the first step to fixing relationship problems. In some cases, that’s all it takes.
Of course, asking alone is sometimes not enough. If we want a high paying job, a helpful spouse, or just about anything, we need to do our part. Also, there are those who are unwilling to help us for no good reason, no matter how, or how often, we ask. But, too often, hard-working people who give so much to the world are not getting what they deserve, simply because they are too afraid to ask. Don’t let this happen to you. Ask for what you deserve, ask for what you need, and ask for what you want. Ask, and you shall receive.
Take a moment and think about the last time you didn’t ask for something you really wanted. Maybe it’s something minor, but maybe it’s something you really need deep down. Why didn’t you ask? Was it for fear of rejection? Was it for fear of seeming rude or demanding? Fear can be a powerful force if we let it. It’s time to conquer that fear of asking. Start today! Whatever that something was you didn’t ask for, go and ask for it. Now. If you can’t ask now, put it in large letters on a piece of paper and hang it somewhere you’ll see it every day. Maybe by your computer, or on the door out of your house. Ask the very next chance you get. Do not wait for the “perfect” opportunity. Just ask! Let it be the first question that leads you on to a better life.